Recently, I went back to the center where I was in treatment to be the recovery speaker at Family Week.
I hadn’t been back since February of 2013, when I discharged. I haven’t seen any of the staff or the therapists. I haven’t really seen any of the girls I was in treatment with, although they are still some of my best friends.
I’d known that I was speaking since October, nine months ago. And since then, I’d gone back and forth about what I wanted to say. I’d gone back and forth about whether or not I was ready. I’d gone back and forth about who to invite and whether to tell the girls I had been there with that I was speaking.
A few weeks before my speaking date, I was confronted with the added challenge of knowing that a friend of mine from when I was in treatment was readmitting, as an adult this time.
Leading up to speaking, there was fear. There was anxiety. Eating disorders are the most competitive illness I’ve ever heard of and I had a lot of fear about that.
Would people believe that I had been sick because I don’t look sick anymore? Would the girls spend too much time looking at my body to listen to what I was saying (a problem that ended up being solved, mostly, by a podium that went up to the middle of my chest)? Would it resonate? Would it be triggering? Would it inspire, scare, change?
I’m not naïve — I know that there’s no way my speech could make everyone want to get better. But if I could reach just one girl, that would be enough.
I know I reached parents because they all came up to me after. I know I reached some girls in that moment because they came up to me. But if it sticks…well, I may never know.
I don’t know those girls’ names or their stories or their struggles. I have no way of checking two years from now to see where they are and how they’re doing. I hope each and every one of them gets through it, but I also know that’s probably not going to be the case. I can just hope.
I had nine months to prepare for speaking and I had mentally prepared for most of the things that could have gone wrong. I was prepared for it to be triggering to see the girls I had once been. I was prepared to have a hard time. But I wasn’t prepared for how much it would hurt to finally say goodbye.
After I had spoken, but before I left the hospital, I stood and looked out at the koi pond where I had spent endless hours, getting to know the girls I was in programming with. I had learned about their passions, their fears, and their families. We had spent hours rearranging the leaves, which at that time were crimson, into flowers over the entire sidewalk.
Looking out past the pond, I saw the unit where I had spent endless hours hurting, learning, grieving and loving. And I felt something inside of me shatter.
I spent the next three days crying.
Because it felt final. It felt like a final goodbye to treatment, the safest place I had ever known in the world and the safest place I will probably ever know.
It felt like a final goodbye to the therapists and dietitians and doctors who I love and credit with helping to save my life. It felt like a final goodbye to the community that treatment creates, to the friendships and closeness and connections.
But more than anything, it felt like a final goodbye to my eating disorder—a final goodbye to my security blanket, my coping mechanism, my way of communicating, even if it hasn’t been that for a few years.
I know that if I relapse, I will feel like I personally betrayed all of the families whom I helped to inspire.
For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been in pretty solid recovery. Sure, there have been bumps but for the most part, I’ve been good.
But for the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve always known that my eating disorder was there if I needed it. I knew I could fall back on it. I knew there was still something safe and comfortable and that I knew how to do. I knew that in the darkest of times, I could use it to help keep myself safe and to get my needs met (albeit temporarily because in the long run, it causes more harm than good).
For the last two-and-a-half years, my eating disorder has sat on the back shelf of my mind like a forgotten stuffed animal from childhood that I dragged around with me for years, and that was always there to make me feel safe.
Now, I have plenty of other ways of helping myself to feel safe—friends, family, therapy, nutritionists, meal plans, journals, coping skills, etc.
But after this final goodbye, both to treatment and to my eating disorder, it feels like that stuffed animal has finally been pulled off the shelf and thrown away. It feels like if I were to need it, it wouldn’t be there. And not having it makes me want it back. Not having it feels a heck of a lot like loss.
Recovery speaking was almost harder than recovery because it meant standing in a room and confronting my past self, realizing just how far I had come. It meant writing a “The End” on that chapter of my life.
And part of it meant realizing that just because I recovered, I didn’t leave behind the parts of my personality that kept me stuck in my eating disorder for so long. I’m not any less of a perfectionist or a planner or less sensitive.
I still crave emotional intensity and want more than anything to be special. And for a long time, that’s what my eating disorder gave me. It gave me intensity. It gave me something to set myself apart.
Saying goodbye to those aspects was the hard part—I don’t miss the behaviors or the physical side effects.
Speaking at Family Week made me realize just how far I have come. It made me realize that, despite my fears, I will never relapse. I know too much.
Missing my eating disorder, my “teddy bear” so to speak, doesn’t mean that I want to go back to it. It just means I realize that it served a purpose, that it met my needs. But I know now that those are needs I can get met in other ways.
The thing is, no matter how much I sometimes miss being sick, at the end of the day I like going to see movies with my boyfriend and having picnics on the kitchen floor with my mom and taking my dogs on a walk and studying for finals and singing with my sister and going deep sea fishing with my dad and get custard with my friends.
I like recovery. I like life. I like living.